By Cassandra Sampson, MS, RD, LDN
It is not uncommon for people to fall into the habit of using food to cope with stress and emotions, rather than opting for alternative methods. If this habit is not addressed, years of stress eating and emotional eating can lead to significant unwanted weight gain.
Addressing this habit involves changing the automatic pattern during times of stress. The impulse must change from choosing food to choosing an activity that will still leave you feeling at ease, relaxed and less stressed. Food may provide comfort or distraction in the moment, but food doesn’t have the ability to solve the issue.
Using food as a coping strategy is most often triggered by:
- A sudden or chronic uncomfortable feeling, emotion or situation
- Lack of rest; feeling exhausted
- Lack of comfort, warmth and nurturing
- Inability to express feelings
- The feeling of not being heard, understood and accepted
- Boredom or the need for entertainment
If any of these triggers are not being satisfied elsewhere, food could be used to fill in the gap. These intense cravings may feel like they come out of nowhere until we realize which basic needs are lacking.
What can you do to cope without using food?
Begin to consider alternative activities that can help you feel better amid stress or an emotional situation. Create a list of ideas to implement when you feel the urge to cope with food.
- Calming Activities:
- Deep breathing
- Take a mindful walk outside
- Write in a journal
- Picture your favorite place
- Make a tight fist and then release it
- Rip paper (I’m serious!)
- Utilize an app such as Insight Timer or Calm
- Take a hot bath or shower
- Distraction Activities:
- Call a friend
- Read a book
- Listen to a podcast or specific music genre
- Watch a movie or favorite TV show
- Play a game
- Color, draw or paint (there are apps for this, too!)
- Do a hobby or a craft
- Clean your living space
- Other ideas:
- Speak with an experienced mental health professional
Stress eating and emotional eating has been described as a “strange gift”. This gift is a sign that the stressors in your life are surpassing the coping mechanisms you’ve implemented. Stress eating and emotional eating can also indicate your lifestyle is unbalanced with too many responsibilities and obligations. This strange gift can be seen as your warning system that there are one or more basic needs that are not being met and food is being used to fill the void.
I encourage you to bring awareness to your coping strategies. Create a plan in advance that includes your favorite calming and/or distraction activities. Be prepared to change the automatic habit to an activity that will not risk gaining unwanted weight.
- Stress and emotional eating can lead to unwanted weight gain if not addressed.
- Changing the automatic pattern during times of stress is important.
- Food may provide comfort in the moment but does not solve the issue.
- Food is often used as a coping strategy triggered by uncomfortable feelings or lack of basic needs.
- Creating a list of alternative activities can help cope with stress or emotional situations.
- Calming activities include yoga, meditation, journaling, and deep breathing.
- Distraction activities include reading, listening to music or podcasts, and exercising.
- Stress and emotional eating can indicate unbalanced lifestyles with too many responsibilities.
- Awareness of coping strategies and creating a plan in advance is important to avoid unwanted weight gain.
April 8, 2023
This article has been written by Cassandra Sampson, RD and fully reviewed and liked by Dr. Jim Liu, MD.
Cassandra Sampson is a Registered Dietitian, a Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist and a certified Mindful & Instinctive Eating Practitioner. Go to her Blog!
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